Of all the political and military complicities that currently exist in the Middle East, the strategic efficacy and practicality of U.S. led airstrikes does not seem to be a hotly contested foreign policy issue in the United States Intelligence Community. The Pentagon often touts the effectiveness of coalition airstrikes at undermining extremist leadership, including the deputy leader of the Islamic State who was killed in an American airstrike in August and a top al-Qaeda financial operative who was killed in northwest Syria this past week, going as far to claim that “our coalition airstrikes are the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Furthermore, public support for aerial intervention has not been stronger; a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 71 percent of Americans support air strikes against the Sunni insurgents in Iraq and nearly two-thirds support expanding airstrikes into Syria. According to new figures released by the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in the last month alone have swelled to record highs, with a total of 2,828 weapons deployed against ISIS targets.
Despite how airstrikes are capable of eliminating American enemies without compromising the safety of U.S. military personnel, the same cannot be said about the civilians who are unavoidably caught in the crossfire. On October 3rd, an American AC-130 gunship attacked a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan that intelligence mistakenly claimed was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity. Despite a rare apology issued several days later by President Obama, MSF’s claim that "the extensive, quite precise destruction” of the hospital makes U.S. military assertions that the bombing raid was a mistake highly unlikely.
Although no armed conflict is without noncombatant casualties, excusal of an error as costly as “collateral damage” seems duplicitous and overly sanitized. Individual investigations are currently being conducted by the Pentagon, a joint U.S.-Afghan team, NATO, and possibly the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, which may or may not categorize the incident as a violation of international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, the United States is no stranger to the accidental attack of civilian facilities in its Middle Eastern peacekeeping endeavors.
For instance, in October 2001, American warplanes bombed the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul, Afghanistan only to bomb the same complex again ten days later – another mistake the Pentagon attributed to "a human error in the targeting process." However, no admission of wrongdoing is complete without attribution to faulty intelligence; a Pentagon statement claimed that "U.S. forces did not know that ICRC was using one or more of the warehouses," and that Taliban may have been using them to store equipment and military vehicles. This unfortunate theme of feigning ignorance as a means of alleviating responsibility has been all too common since the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. bombed a civilian air-raid shelter in Amiriyah, Iraq because it fit the profile of a military command center, an assumption that killed 408 civilians. Brigadier General Buster Glosson, who had primary responsibility for targeting, later commented that the assessment wasn't "worth a shit”. Among U.S. aerial mistakes include the 1991 bombing of an Iraqi infant formula production plant mistaken for a “…facility for biological weapons”, the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia, and 2013 drone strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy mistaken for Al-Qaeda.
Yet considering Médecins Sans Frontières’ reputation as a European, Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization, perhaps the level of international recognition and investigative urgency an incident receives does not depend on the severity of the atrocity, but the resources available to the surviving victims. Nearly half of all civilian deaths are considered “poorly” reported, meaning they consist of only a single-source claim featuring biographical or photographic evidence, or just contested incidents. As a result, the efficacy of aerial strikes becomes exceedingly questionable when we take into account all the stories that do not make headline news: the voiceless Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian lives that the U.S. military has ended, but cannot acknowledge due to a lack of source-able evidence. The line between war mistake and war crime, collateral damage and collateral murder, is a blurry one. President Obama’s recent announcement to leave 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of his term is a grim reminder that our role in the region is far from over. Thus, the American public should reevaluate its aloof acceptance of airstrikes to achieve ambiguous counterterrorism objectives when it is not willing to fully commit to the conflict.
- Samuel Kim